For all the wonderful cultural delights Italy is known for, there’s arguably no bigger Italian institution than its cuisine. At least as far as the British are concerned anyway, Italian food embodies every positive stereotype there is about the country itself, from the simple style and sophistication of the dishes to the passion and heart that goes into making them.
Just as accessible to make at home as it is enjoyed in a restaurant, Italian cooking is a mainstay of the British foodie scene. In this article, we’ll discuss a few of the true classics in the Italian culinary catalogue – and discuss whether “going Italian” is actually the most popular food choice of them all.
The quintessential dishes
While you can head down to your local Italian and order any number of “classic” dishes, there are a few that stand out above the rest as the cornerstone recipes of Italian cooking across the Western world.
First, the national dish of Italy – Ragu alla Bolognese. Better known as “spag bol” to us unsophisticated Brits, a Bolognese sauce can be matched up with any type of pasta, be it penne, tagliatelle, pappardelle or fettuccine. The key is the sauce itself, made from a rich mix of tomatoes, minced beef, garlic, wine and herbs. Originating in the historic city of Bologna, its namesake produce has become one of the most well-known dishes and sauces worldwide, but is still undoubtedly worth sampling in its home setting.
Virtually the next culinary door down, the universally loved dish that is Lasagne alla Bolognese is all too familiar to our tastebuds, but the original, traditional lasagne recipe that originated in Naples featuring the chunky meat and bechamel sauce mix isn’t the norm everywhere. In America, the typical recipe replaces the bechamel sauce and Bolognese mix with layers of meat sauce, ricotta and mozzarella cheese – an alternative most Europeans would likely turn their nose up at.
Still, one thing we can all agree on is that we all love pizza. However, with the absurd success of the dish across the globe and the countless adaptations made to it, the style of pizza we prefer in our own homes likely has some stark differences to the original Pizza Napoletana – which translates to Naples style pizza with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and basil. A very thin, almost crackable crust, fresh tomatoes, drizzled olive oil, garlic, oregano and minimal toppings are all typical features of authentic Italian pizza, which is often a far cry from the thicker, topping heavy and slow-cooked tomato sauce offerings we’re used to in our supermarkets and takeaways.
Finally, if you ever find yourself in the Lombardy region, most notably Milan, it would be a cardinal sin not to sample some truly authentic risotto – the staple rice-based favourite of Italy that’s incredibly versatile, working well with various meat, fish and vegetable options. If sat in a Milanese restaurant, however, your best bet would be to try the saffron-flavoured Risotto alla Milanese that features beef stock, lard and cheese.
Combine any of the above with a bit of traditional focaccia bread, most notably some Focaccia al Rosmarin (focaccia garnished with rosemary), and you can say you’ve at least scratched the surface of this incredible country’s best dishes.
Is Italian food the most popular in the world?
What makes Italian food as popular as it is? Beyond the outstanding flavours and excellent variation within the national scene, arguably the best feature of Italian cooking is its simplicity and accessibility, especially in relation to the quality of dishes you can produce with limited knowledge and effort. Because of that, Italian food finds itself just as, if not more, popular in the home than out in restaurants, and a recent study from YouGov found Italian food to be the most popular in the world.
According to the study, 91% of British consumers who have tried Italian food report that they like it, while numerous pasta dishes like spaghetti Bolognese have consistently found themselves in the UK’s top ten favourites. The financial data supports this, with Italian food exports to the UK in 2019 totalling over €2.1bn, with beverage exports sitting at just over the €1bn mark.
There’s no questioning the quality or popularity of Italian food here or indeed anywhere else in the Western world, then, and it would appear, despite stiff competition in the UK from all the adapted cultural cuisines we enjoy, Italian still reigns as king on both a commercial and domestic level.